We don’t like mothers very much in this country. Yes, this Sunday is Mother’s Day, but how do you feel about that? Obligated to make a phone call, a Zoom meeting? Did you slap your head, remembering that you need to get a card and mail it today if it’s to get there in time? Did you then remember that cards aren’t really a thing anymore in this plague era, and what do you do now? Maybe you could send flowers? Or sponsor a tree planting in her name? Or just pretend like you never saw this and forgot? Because we forget much in these days of flux.
You have affectionate feelings for your mother, I’m sure, no matter how complicated by overlying tensions they might be. You love your mother, probably love the idea of motherhood in some fashion. But do you like your mother? Do you like the idea of mothers? Have you ever considered these questions?
Very likely not. Mother is a concept that we do not question. But I will answer it for you. In all probability, you don’t like mothers very much.
I am not talking about personal resentment or personality clashes, though those feed into the dislike. This is a cultural problem. In this country we have mawkish caricatures in pink and soft light. We have baby showers and sentimental portraits. We put Mother on a pedestal — the better to keep her out of the way.
We do not listen to her. We do not give her what she needs. We do not care what she wants. We do not truly love her. And we are continually embarrassed by her existence. Because it reminds us of what we owe to others, of our dependence, of our utter lack of self-sufficiency, of our aging body and the sagging, befuddled future that awaits it. We can’t be self-made folks when we account for our mothers. We can’t be eternally youthful but mature in body, perennially strong in intellect, and unchangingly powerful in relationship when we are confronted with the physical fact of our mothers. We can’t tolerate that there is one person in the world who knew us and knows us at our weakest and stupidest. We don’t want to be in debt that can never be repaid, can not even be properly acknowledged with the tools we set aside for that — cards, flowers, Mother’s Day.
What would a real day for mothers look like? For one thing, it would be every day because that’s how much we owe. For another, there would be less pink and far more practical.
Mothers in this country are in a constant state of conflict. Mothers are supposed to do it all, preferably in silence and self-sacrifice. Supposed to feed, clothe, nurse, teach, protect. Love unconditionally. Supposed to inculcate values and societal norms. Supposed to be there for every need. And yet also supposed to be household providers and thus employed somewhere else many hours of the day. Or night. Mothers are also supposed to be individuals who have full lives that are not tied to their children. Supposed to have careers, not merely jobs. Supposed to cultivate interests and be interesting. Supposed to be independent — so that we do not feel the burden of her attachment and our dependence.
Mothers are supposed to laud our every accomplishment but refrain from offering advice, much less criticism. Mothers are supposed to watch our every step but from a distance, preferably from behind. Mothers are supposed to keep us out of trouble but stay out of our way when the troublesome things we do are what we desire. Mothers are never supposed to point out that the trouble we cause hurts us as much as it hurts everything else, including our mothers.
In this country, we put mothers in fetters. Mothers can not be what we want because what we want is not possible. It is not possible to provide food for the table through wage-work and be at home to prepare that food for dinner. It is not possible to love fiercely and yet remain aloof and unconcerned. It is not possible to be a mother on a pedestal, one that graciously accepts our belated cards and insufficient gratitude with no expectations or wishes of her own. It is not possible to care and not be cared for.
We do not recognize mothers because we do not like to care. We want to be cared for only when we want that care. We do not want the obligation to care for others. Motherhood is the embodiment of care work, and we do not like care work at all.
So back to the question: what would Mother’s Day look like if we loved our mothers?
Let’s start with the basics. Bodily sovereignty and equality — in responsibility and in reward. The total freedom to decide whether or not to be a mother. The divorce of femaleness and motherhood. The assignment of duties to no gender and the expectation that all people will do what needs to be done — including emotional doings. The assignment of equal value to all work and to equal reward to all equally valued work. The assignment of roles to nobody and the total fulfillment of roles by everybody. Of course, there are biological limitations; these should be treated as insufficiency on the male side, not as female handicaps. But in these very few cases where females must do the necessary work, males must assist in every possible way, and as assistants, not leaders or experts. Men do not know how to be pregnant and can offer zero advice on the subject, but they absolutely must offer help to women — all women, not merely the ones they impregnate — when women’s bodies are doing this difficult and energy-consuming reproductive labor for our species.
Those are the basics. What other things might be in a real Mother’s Day? What is Mother’s Day? It is the day we express our gratitude and love for the people who made us.
This is the point where I will bring the rest of the world into the discussion. We can be loving, caring and grateful to the singular women who gave birth to each of us and still not be doing enough for our mothers. Because our mothers are not the only people who made us. Yes, there are fathers and grandparents and other human ancestors. But more importantly there is the whole world, all of it contributing to your existence and well-being. You would not exist if there were not stars, bacteria, rivers, jellyfish, soil, ruminants, rain, grass, fire, fresh air, and all the infinity that came before you, that feeds you, that made your body and keeps it alive. You are utterly dependent on more than the woman who gave birth to you and for your entire life, not merely childhood.
A true Mother’s Day would acknowledge this interdependence and would celebrate it. We would love the rocks and trees and birds because they are part of us and we are part of them. This whole world is our mother and we are mother as well. We are cared for by every thing, and we owe a debt of care to every thing.
What would a real Mother’s Day look like? There would be an end to war, to oppression, to waste. There would be an end to destruction, an end to carelessness, an end to private gain at the expense of any other thing. There would be reciprocity, responsibility, respect for all of our Mother and all of our mothers. There would be love freely given and overflowing to our Mother and every one of our mothers. There would be gratitude. There would be community.
I do not think this Mother’s Day will come to pass in my lifetime, but I also do not think it beyond human capacity. In fact, every indication points to this being the ground state for humans, our natural ways of being, the way we lived for most of our existence. There are large pockets of this true humanity even now, when everything in the dominant culture wants to suppress it and every tool of that culture is bent on its annihilation. If true love for our mothers has survived the last few centuries, then it must be a very strong tendency. It will return.
So for now, I wish you all a happy mother’s day. And keep dreaming of the day when that will be truly possible.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021